Local opinion columnists

Here’s the ‘Other Side’ of the conference story

By From page A9 | January 27, 2013

Kelvin Wade’s column, “All expenses paid for secret knowledge hunters,” published Jan. 17, criticizes three members of the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District Board for attending a California Association of Sanitation Agencies conference this month in Indian Wells.

It reads like a comedy with a laugh track; almost a guaranteed response from government critics. It’s a too-easy-to-write piece, with all the information available online, both for the expenses (a public record) and the amenities of the conference location. At least Kelvin resisted using the word “junket” this time, unlike in his columns on the same subject in May. I mean, who is in favor of junkets? One hardly has to think!

Allow me to present the other side, because there is one, an important one.

Groups like CASA exist for one purpose, to bring elected board and staff members from local agencies together for education and action. The education is an end in itself, to make better board and staff members. But it also fuels the action, which is lobbying, mostly, and other forms of individual and group advocacy on behalf of their organizations. That means speaking for us in Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, and I want them to be good at it, don’t you?

There is no substitute for the networking and team building that can go on in face-to-face meetings like conferences. When I attend conferences, I find some of the most valuable interactions I have are over the lunches, in conversation with someone I’ve not met before, or meeting people right after a session breaks up and we ask questions or discuss what we just heard. It’s these chance encounters that provide added value from a well-organized conference that’s difficult to measure.

Organizations like CASA tend to hold their conferences at nice places for a simple reason: They want people to attend. Luxury is not what the associations are looking for in their conference venues; they are more sensitive to the issues raised about spending public money than people may realize.

Other factors are more important. Only so many places in the state can handle a conference of several thousand attendees. There needs to be adequate hotel accommodations in the area and the conference facility has to have lots of properly equipped rooms for breakout sessions as well as a large room for general sessions. If the conference provides meals, and CASA does, most of them are lunches with a general session program. That requires a kitchen that can produce and serve a large number of meals at one time.

I don’t advocate attendees spending money on first-class airfare or pricy bottles of wine at public expense, but I don’t begrudge them staying at the conference hotel, having some decent meals and socializing after the day is done. All that can add to the networking, team building and chance encounters that bring added value to the attendees and their organizations.

Of course, the associations can’t control how attendees behave on their own. There have been scandalous expenses at conferences by some public officials. As a result, the state passed a law requiring every public agency to adopt a code of ethics and provide ethics training to board members. The agency also has to adopt travel and conference policies that naturally become public information.

The DR should obtain and publish those policies and check if they are being followed rather than imply that our public officials are off without any reasonable controls or discipline concerning expenses. That’s more of a private sector thing these days. Have you seen what some of these CEOs do with company money?

We don’t pay our board members much, and the least we can do for the time they commit is to not force them either to stay home or go third class when attending conferences. They serve so you and I don’t have to become sewer system or governance experts. Board members who pointedly refuse to attend conferences out of some effort to appear populist are doing us a disservice, as is, therefore, Kelvin’s column.

Richard L. (Rick) Wood retired from the city of Fairfield’s Public Works Department and lives in Fairfield. Reach him by email at [email protected]

Richard L. Wood


Discussion | 2 comments

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  • George Guynn, JrJanuary 28, 2013 - 11:02 am

    Rick, there you go again with that pro big out of control government spin on the facts about the Sewer Board! If you weren't getting a $100K+ a year retirement off the public, you might not feel so kindly toward more wasteful out of control government. Funny, but I don't recall ever seeing you at a Sewer Board Meeting. Additionally, the Fairfield Mayor has received over $100K from the taxpayers for going to these juckets just from the sewer board. I have asked for things that were learned at the the conferences by the board and the only answer I get is that they learned about UV tech, which is over 30 years old technology. They haven't mentioned even one new idea! The Suisun Mayor even claimed he just ate rat sandwiches till it was proven that he had a $50 dinner. Then, he claimed that he was forced to do it! LOL!!! Water runs up hill too! I don't have a problem with one or two staff people going to conferences, and maybe one politicial to pass on to the others what was learned. However, having most of the board go to just suck the trough dry at taxpayer expence is very shameful.

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 28, 2013 - 1:21 pm

    And there you go again with the personal attacks, insults, and reckless interpretations of the facts and what I wrote. All you have is an unsatisfactory answer to a question you asked and a $50 dinner. I will take your word on that, but I’ve already responded to those types of complaints in my column. So let’s move on. There are probably others out there who think Fairfield, Suisun City, and the FSSD Board (which is made up of the two city councils—ten members) are “big out of control government,” but I see no evidence of that. And if you are going to cite statistics, make them relevant. Whatever the Sewer District has paid in advance or reimbursed Mayor Price for going to conferences should be presented as an average or a single high year. He’s served over 15 years, so he has averaged under $7,000 per year, assuming the $100K you cite is just for conferences and not all meeting and travel expenses. That out of a FSSD budget that is what, $24 million per year? What you failed to mention that IS relevant is Mayor Price is active in CASA leadership. He’s been on the CASA Board of Directors for years and has been the Association’s president recently. Most people would congratulate him for that and take pride that our mayor has taken such interest and served so well in a major state-wide association. So he and the other Board members are not “sucking the trough dry at taxpayer expense” or doing anything shameful. Quite the contrary. I’m glad you concede CASA conferences have value and FSSD should be represented. But representation is not the point; all the value I cite in my column is the point. As many Board members who can attend and be active, should. Mayor Price is setting a good example.

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